In this era of basketball, the NBA has taken major steps to police on-court fights and altercations, assessing technical fouls, ejections, and suspensions for transgressions that in the not-so-distant past might have seen no punishment at all. It's a new paradigm, and one the basketball world has mostly come to accept. Nevertheless, certain reactions still have the capacity to surprise.
With mere seconds left in the first half of Wednesday night's game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center, Serge Ibaka completed what seemed like a clean block (but which included a Thabo Sefolosha foul) on Blake Griffin. In the immediate aftermath of the play, Ibaka got his right arm tangled underneath Griffin's own right arm as both players came to the ground. After some forceful, though not exactly combative, jostling, Ibaka wrenched his arm free as Griffin took a few off-balance steps away. It was an awkward, unfortunate moment that thankfully seemed to end before it could escalate into a fight.
Then everything got a little messy. Clippers pest Matt Barnes pushed Ibaka in the chest, presumably to protect his star teammate. Ibaka responded by lunging at Barnes and briefly clenching his fist, but nothing occurred beyond the typical tangles that follow testy moments. It didn't seem like much of a fight, and it was hard to imagine a scenario in which anyone received more than a technical foul.
The referees did not agree, with Barnes and Ibaka receiving ejections and Griffin earning a technical foul. ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy was befuddled at the apparent overreaction, as was virtually everyone else who saw the altercation.
Barnes took to Twitter several minutes after his ejection to note that he will try to refrain from standing up for teammates in the future, because it is too expensive (two words we can't use elided):
Of course, the NBA also doesn't allow players to use social media during games, so Barnes can expect an additional fine for the tweet about how he's going to avoid fines. The world is cruel sometimes.
While the referees' decision is confusing, it is possible that the referees were reacting to recent history. On March 3, Ibaka surreptitiously struck Griffin in the nether regions, so there's an obvious history between these two players. On the other hand, that incident earned Ibaka a mere flagrant foul, not an ejection, which makes one wonder exactly what constitutes unacceptable behavior on an NBA court in 2013.
Van Gundy and others disagreed with this particular punishment in large part because it appears to encourage today's players to be "soft," but that designation continues to be mostly meaningless, especially because punching other guys in the face often gets players labeled as thugs and borderline criminals. The bigger issue here is that NBA punishment continues to be assessed on a confusing case-by-case basis in which an action that seems totally awful (e.g. punching a dude in the groin) receives a more lenient sentence than a mostly innocuous shove to the chest. For that matter, it's not clear that these actions won't be punished differently in future games.
The athletes have little sense of which actions will earn them which penalties, and that's a problem. Beyond that, though, it's unclear why they should respect and trust in the referees' decisions. How can a person buy into a system that doesn't seem to abide by its own internal logic?
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